You can tell a lot about a presidential administration by the news they try to hide. Politicians have a time-honored tradition, called the “Friday News Dump” — releasing bad news on a Friday afternoon in hope of it getting lost in the weekend shuffle.
Two weeks ago, the Trump administration set a new benchmark for this practice, releasing the “Fourth National Climate Assessment” (NCA4) on Black Friday, in a clear attempt to downplay or even bury the findings of this Congressionally mandated study. This is par for the course for a president whose personal views on climate change are famously divorced from reality and whose policies have been relentlessly hostile to climate change preparedness.
But there are also a few reasons for optimism.
First, it does matter that the administration views the release of the NCA4 as bad news. It demonstrates that, on some level, administration apparatchiks understand that their backwards march on climate policy is out of step with reality. Second, the dire and unequivocal warnings in the NCA4 are themselves an indication that officials only interfered politically with the timing for the report, not its contents — unlike what happened to climate reports released during the Bush administration.
Finally, if the administration’s goal was indeed to bury the report, it backfired spectacularly. National and local newspapers and cable news actually gave this NCA4 release much more coverage than is usual for climate-related stories. And that’s good news, because the report is full of important information, not just about impacts to people and the economy, but also to wildlife and habitat.
The complete 1,500-page document contains individual chapters on Forests, Ecosystems & Biodiversity, Coastal Impacts and Oceans, each providing more detail than did previous iterations of the NCA. Following are some of the key lessons from these chapters:
- Climate changes are happening faster than most species’ ability to evolve to keep pace with them, and that problem is compounded by population impacts from habitat fragmentation and other threats;
- Changes that affect phenology, the seasonal timing of life events, are likely to be particularly severe for migratory species whose arrival at feeding habitats is based on millennia of established climate patterns;
- Species’ ranges are shifting, primarily in the direction of cooler conditions — northward, to higher elevations, or to deeper water; not surprisingly, high-elevation species are particularly at risk;
- Severe weather events can push invasive species into new areas and create space for them to take hold;
- Climate changes are altering ecosystem processes and dynamics between species in ways that are difficult to predict, but could have far-reaching consequences;
- Climate change is affecting forests both through direct environmental change (such as longer droughts and hotter conditions) and by increasing the likelihood of major disturbances like insect outbreaks, mass tree mortality, and severe wildfires, which in turn affect forests’ ability to provide clean water, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat and forest products;
- By 2100, an additional 16 percent of coastal wetlands (marshes, estuaries, mangroves, and similar habitats) could be lost due to sea-level rise and increased storm surge;
- Disruption to marine ecosystems will intensify, driven by ocean warming, acidification, and reduction of oxygen and changes in nutrients. The Oceans chapter warns that: “In the absence of significant reductions in carbon emissions, transformative impacts on ocean ecosystems [particularly coral reefs and sea ice] cannot be avoided.”
We know that these potential impacts describe a plausible future because our ecosystems are already contending with these threats. The horrific wildfires in California bear the “fingerprints” of climate change, owing their severity in part to a warming-induced jet stream pattern that has baked the state in relentless heat and drought. Unfortunately, this is just one example of the climate change impacts already being felt by wildlife in the West.
In the desert, where plants and animals already live at the edge of tolerance for hot and dry conditions, those conditions are worsening. The Sonoran pronghorn was nearly driven to extinction in 2003 by a drought that lasted 13 months; no fawn born that year survived, and most of the adults were killed as well. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has since provided supplemental food and water during drought conditions as part of its conservation strategy for this endangered subspecies. In Joshua Tree National Park, the Agassiz’s desert tortoise, one of the best-adapted species for this environment, had a similar population crash in 2012, when drought conditions exceeded even its ability to cope.
Mountains are increasingly not a refuge for species either. High-elevation critters like the pika are being pushed upslope due to their inability to tolerate high summer temperatures — and some are running out of mountain to climb. Ptarmigans, which live their entire lives on alpine tundra, somewhat paradoxically, can freeze to death when slightly warmer temperatures turn dry, insulating snowfall into miserable freezing rain. And warmer temperatures are helping forest pests like pine beetles to spread their range, threatening whitebark pine, a keystone species whose fat-rich seeds feed an array of wildlife, from Clark’s nutcrackers to grizzly bears.
And aquatic species may have it worse than terrestrial ones. Drought conditions in Yellowstone have dried up many of the small, fish-free ponds that amphibians depend on to successfully breed; several species are in decline there. And many of the West’s most iconic trout and salmon species are suffering without ample, cold, clean water. Water warmed by climate change holds less dissolved oxygen, a huge stress to upstream spawners. And more erratic precipitation means that streams and rivers face lower flows from drought, and silt-laden flood conditions, sometimes in a single season.
While much of the news attention thus far has focused on NCA4’s documentation of the ongoing and accelerating impacts of climate change to human wellness and economies, we hope policymakers will also take note of its equally dire warnings about these effects to wildlife and habitats and act accordingly.